It's Kansas, Toto, But This Isn't a Top-Loading Washer

Bern, Kan., is the kind of place where the grain grows high but water runs short.

The town periodically ran dry until it got access to new wells a decade ago. During one drought, it had to truck its water in. Which is why last fall the residents of Bern got to test a different kind of washing machine. It's called a front-loading washer.

Eager to see the conservation benefits first-hand, the federal Energy Department picked Bern (population 204) to test out the technology. Last summer, 104 families signed up for its program. In exchange for a complimentary front-loader donated by Maytag, they agreed to evaluate each load of laundry, weigh it before and after each wash, and have their water and electric usage carefully monitored. After five months, the results came in.

The Maytag machines, called Neptunes, used 58 percent less energy and 39 percent less water than similar-sized conventional washers. The water savings were enough to fill Bern's water tower 13 times.

According to Maytag, that means the average family could save $100 a year on utility bills by switching to its machine. Consumers have responded enthusiastically. They've snapped up so many Neptunes, Maytag can't keep up with demand. And that's in spite of its $1,100 price tag, about double the cost of a comparable conventional washer.

"We thought it would be an upper-end, niche kind of product," says Linda Eggerss, manager of marketing for Maytag Appliances, based in Newton, Iowa. But "sales are phenomenal."

Maytag isn't alone. For decades, European manufacturers have sold front-loaders in Europe. By adapting the technology to the North American market - larger capacities, shorter cycle times - General Electric, Amana, and Frigidaire have all introduced new models.

Front-loaders get their name because you load them from the front, like a dryer. But the real distinction is that they also spin like a dryer, tumbling clothes up and down rather than swishing them around like conventional washers. The tumbling action offers several benefits.

There's no need for an agitator, which can tangle clothes and make it hard to load bulky items. Front-loaders use only a small amount of water, which sits at the bottom of the drum. The cleaning action comes from the clothes being pulled repeatedly through that shallow pool of water as they rotate around. Because they use less water, front-loaders need less electric power to heat it. As a result of the energy savings, several models have earned the government's EnergyStar certification (for specific models, see the program's Web site: www.energystar.gov).

Some electric utilities are also pushing the technology. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, a regional collaboration of electric utilities and public-interest groups offered a $130 rebate to consumers who bought approved front-loaders. The program was so successful, it has had to scale back its rebate to $75 and will phase it out completely after September.

New versions of Tide and Wisk specifically designed for the lower temperatures of front-loaders have also been introduced.

In Bern, the technology gets good reviews. "Overwhelmingly positive," says Betty Lortscher, a local who chaired the washer study effort. None of the families have used the option to trade back to their old machines. "Because it's a rural community, you're always more aware of the water needs," she adds. Ranchers have to water livestock; farmers monitor rainfall.

Ronda Haverkamp is a little more guarded about the Maytag Neptune. Of course, she's a tough critic of any washer. Her husband raises hogs.

"It doesn't work any worse," she says.

* Send comments to lbelsie@ix.netcom.com or visit my "In Cyberspace" forum at www.csmonitor.com

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